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The Brewers Bullpen Is Trying to Break Baseball

Against the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS, Milwaukee’s pitching staff was as good as any pitching staff has ever been. Not one player pitched more than five total innings, but now one of the most fascinating experiments in recent MLB history comes up against its toughest opponent yet. Can Milwaukee’s deep bullpen outlast the Los Angeles Dodgers and their even deeper offense?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Milwaukee’s three-game NLDS sweep of Colorado last week was one of the most dominant teamwide pitching performances I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that the Rockies scored only two runs in three games, it’s that their two runs came in the same inning, just after the Brewers one-hit them over the game’s first eight innings, and just before the Brewers won in walk-off fashion one inning later. Outside of the ninth inning of Game 1, Colorado didn’t score a run.

Over three games, the Rockies went 14-for-96 with just eight walks and three extra-base hits—two doubles and a triple—plus one additional baserunner on an error in Game 1. The Rockies got to Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress, who allowed both of Colorado’s runs en route to a blown save, but the seven other Milwaukee pitchers who took the mound combined to allow just 15 baserunners against 26 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings, which is 74 outs. The Brewers’ Christian Yelich and Travis Shaw also reached base 15 times between them in the NLDS, but those two made just 13 outs.

Make no mistake, the Rockies’ offensive performance in the NLDS was the most embarrassing public spectacle to come out of Colorado since the last time anyone thought about playing 3OH!3’s “Don’t Trust Me.” But the Brewers had an easier time of it because only one link on their chain was even put under strain, and none broke. With two off days before the series and another between games 2 and 3, manager Craig Counsell could rev his relievers to the redline for the entire series.

The NLCS features a tougher schedule—best of seven in a 2-3-2 format—and a much tougher opponent, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Colorado had only four hitters on its playoff roster with a wRC+ of 100 (league average) or better in at least 100 PA. The Dodgers had 11 such hitters this year, and all but Corey Seager, who went down with a torn UCL in April, stand to feature in this series. In other words, the Dodgers have more above-average hitters than they can put in the lineup at one time.

So can it work again, under more difficult circumstances? It’ll be tough, likely requiring an unprecedented number of innings from the bullpen, against an opponent uniquely suited to stop them. (One imagines Counsell in the home clubhouse in the basement of Miller Park essentially giving the briefing from Ocean’s 11.) But it can be done.

The Brewers will use as many as a dozen pitchers in the NLCS, but the business end of Milwaukee’s bullpen is comprised of five pitchers: left-hander Josh Hader and righties Jeffress, Joakim Soria, Corey Knebel, and Corbin Burnes.

“We haven’t seen a pen like this, with some of the guys that they’ve picked up [at the trade deadline],” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “It’s as deep a bullpen as you’re going to see in the big leagues. Very good arms, very neutral as far as left hand versus right hand.”

Knebel, a 26-year-old Texan, ended 2017 as Milwaukee’s closer and one of the best in baseball. Last season he led the National League with 76 relief appearances, in which he saved 39 games, posted a 1.78 ERA, recorded more than half of his outs by strikeout, and made the All-Star team. But Knebel missed most of April with a hamstring injury, and when he returned found himself cohabitating as Brewers closer with Jeffress and Hader. Knebel is as stereotypical a closer as closers get, with just two pitches: a fastball that sits in the high 90s and a knuckle-curve that he throws about 30 percent of the time. The difference between Knebel’s fastball and curveball is in the neighborhood of 15 miles per hour and 19 inches of vertical break, a gap so great it’s next to impossible for a hitter to read and react. You almost have to guess what’s coming before the pitch.

This year Knebel led the Brewers with 16 saves, while Jeffress and Hader both became All-Stars in their own right. Hader posted the second-highest strikeout rate ever by a left-handed pitcher, while Jeffress posted a 1.29 ERA in 76 2/3 innings. The only other relievers in the past 30 years to post an ERA that low in that many innings were Oakland’s Blake Treinen this year and Eric Gagne in his Cy Young season in 2003. In addition to combining for 27 saves, Jeffress and Hader went a combined 14-2 and finished the season first and second among National League relievers in win probability added. Though they could not be more different as pitchers.

Hader, like Knebel, works off a mid-90s fastball to a low-80s breaking ball, though Hader’s slider moves much more horizontally than Knebel’s curveball. Hader also benefits from the deception his busy, herky-jerky delivery offers him. Picking the ball up out of Hader’s hand is like playing a shell game through a series of ceiling fans.

Jeffress also throws hard, averaging 96 mph on his four-seamer, but he’s much more of a finesse pitcher, with a strikeout rate of 29.8 percent, compared with 39.5 percent for Knebel and 46.7 percent for Hader. (Yes, a closer who throws 96 and strikes out almost 30 percent of the batters he faces is “more of a finesse pitcher” these days.) While Hader and Knebel have such good stuff that you can’t hit the ball even when you know what’s coming, Jeffress has to keep batters guessing. In 2018, he threw four pitches—a four-seamer, a sinker, a splitter, and a curveball—at least 15 percent of the time, but none more than 31.7 percent of the time.

The 34-year-old Soria, who arrived from the White Sox via trade in July, is a veteran closer who recorded his first 40-save season 10 years ago. Soria’s another step down the power scale from Jeffress, with a fastball that averages 93 and tops out at 96, with a changeup, curveball, and slider.

Then there’s Burnes, a bespectacled rookie who turns 24 next week. He was a successful college starter at St. Mary’s in California before turning into one of the top starting pitching prospects in the game after the Brewers made him a fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft. On FanGraphs’ midseason prospect rankings, Burnes was the 27th-rated prospect in all of baseball and the 11th-ranked pitcher. As the Brewers’ season has worn on, their starting pitchers have pitched less and less. Since September 1, including the playoffs, Brewers starters have combined to record 10 outs, total, in the sixth inning or later, out of 30 games. No Brewers starter has so much as thrown a pitch in the seventh inning since August 31.

Burnes came up as a starter and will probably return to the rotation next year, but for now, he’s the guy who enters close games and pitches what would traditionally be the starting pitcher’s third time through the lineup. Because he enters so often with the game tied, or takes over before the starter’s gone through five innings, Burnes has amassed seven wins in his first 30 regular-season appearances, totaling 38 innings, and earned another win with two perfect innings in Game 3 of the NLDS.

That eclectic group of pitchers combined to throw almost half of Milwaukee’s total innings in the NLDS.

“We’re all completely different pitchers, from Hader to [Dan] Jennings—they’re different left-handers,” Burnes said. “From Corey to JJ to me, we’re all different right-handers. We all have different ways of attacking hitters.”

During Counsell’s Thursday press conference, he fielded a question that compared this bullpen to the 2001 Diamondbacks rotation that included Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and whether riding two dominant starters versus a handful of dominant relievers had a shared tactical origin: using a team’s best pitchers as much as possible.

“That’s what it is,” Counsell said. “You’re using your team’s talents the best way you can to win games. And so for that team, that was the best way to do it. For this team, we have to think about things differently because of the talents of some of the players on our team. And so that’s all we’re trying to do.”

That’s one of the great tactical challenges for Counsell: how to get the ball in his best pitchers’ hands for the greatest possible number of outs.

Faced with one game to win and a fully rested bullpen, Counsell could easily get 27 outs using just these five pitchers. In addition to Burnes, Hader was also developed as a starter, and he has remained a multi-inning reliever throughout his big league tenure. Hader looks like a lefty specialist, with his weird delivery and big slider, and performs like one; lefties hit just .090/.186/.169 off him this year. Hader has, on occasion, been brought in to face just one hitter, including two one-out saves in which he threw six pitches total. And he had another such appearance in Game 2 of the NLDS, in which he came in with a runner on third, retired Charlie Blackmon, and gave way to Jeffress for a six-out save.

But Hader has also recorded at least four outs in 33 of his 55 appearances this year, and Burnes pitched two full innings in Games 1 and 3 of the NLDS. And it’s tough to pitch multiple innings on back-to-back days. Hader and Burnes combined to pitch on back-to-back days nine times out of 85 combined regular-season appearances, and neither threw more than one inning two days in a row.

That means someone outside those five relievers has to eat some innings, and that goes double if one of those relievers gets knocked out of the game before his scheduled stint is done; think about the bind the Yankees found themselves in during Game 3 of the ALDS when long reliever Lance Lynn recorded just one out.

Roberts is well aware of this potential pitfall of a bullpen-heavy approach. Targeting Milwaukee’s starters is not only probably the easiest way to score runs, but knocking them out early will force Counsell to tax his best arms more, bring in weaker relievers to lighten the load, or possibly both.

“Their highest-leverage guys are going to be used or have been used with leads,” Roberts said. “So it is important that if you can get a lead, it kind of changes their kind of way they deploy guys. And every inning is important, but when you look at their guys in the pen, it’s tough to score runs. They do a very good job of preventing runs. How long each guy goes, that’s up to Craig, but I do think that in a seven-game series, regardless of how good a pen is, the more innings you can have them log, I think that that’s in our best interest. So the idea of beating the starter still for me makes sense.”

In the NLDS, the Brewers played back-to-back games only once, but if the NLCS goes seven games, they’ll play back-to-back games twice at home, plus a three-game set on the road. Counsell and Burnes both stressed that the Brewers are used to pitching with a string of relievers because they’ve been doing that since September, but the situation they’ll face against the Dodgers is not only more stressful, they’ll go into it with a shorter bench, because after playing with a 40-man active roster in September, they can dress only 25 players for the entire NLCS.

However, Milwaukee’s situation is easier now than it was in the last round in one crucial respect: Their rotation is set up more favorably. In the NLDS, the Brewers had only one game in which they used a traditional starter on full rest; Wade Miley went exactly twice through the order, 4 2/3 innings, on eight days’ rest in Game 3. Reliever Brandon Woodruff threw three innings to open Game 1, while nominal ace Jhoulys Chacín threw five innings on three days’ rest in Game 2 after throwing 75 pitches in the tiebreaker game against Chicago.

This time around, all of Milwaukee’s starters are on full rest, including Gio González, who didn’t pitch at all against Colorado but will start Game 1. That means that even if the plan is for Milwaukee’s starter to go twice through the order and make way, González, Miley, or Chacín could still eat up six or seven innings if the Brewers find themselves up big early. Counsell’s short hook will also allow him to mix up his rotation, moving Woodruff back to the pen full-time, and to bring his starters, who’ll be fresher after throwing 60 to 80 pitches per start, rather than 100, in for relief appearances. González warmed up during the NLDS, and Counsell made a point to mention that even though Chacín isn’t scheduled to start until Game 3, he’ll be available out of the bullpen in Game 1, should the need present itself.

Moreover, every single pitch thrown by a Brewer in the NLDS came with either the game tied or the Brewers leading. And while the Brewers never trailed, they also led by more than two runs for only five out of 27 defensive innings, and more than four runs for one defensive inning. There was only one real inning of garbage time in the entire series, the bottom of the ninth inning in the decisive Game 3, which went to Jeffress and Hader anyway. Every other pitch came in a relatively high-leverage spot, and therefore every pitch that the Brewers threw came out of the hand of either a starter or one of the five high-leverage relievers.

The odds of that happening again are vanishingly small, particularly if this series goes six or seven games. Counsell will be able to take his foot off the gas at some point over the next week, and, with a well-rested crop of starting pitchers, he’ll be able to limit his best pitchers to pitching in only the most important situations. Counsell just has to identify those situations.

“The managers are trying to get matchups, so you’ve got to manage the game,” Counsell said. “Now, both sides are not going to get [the matchups they want] in every single case. Ultimately this boils down to the players competing against each other, which is how it should be decided.”

For 100 years, one of the most persistent tactical questions in baseball has been when to chase the platoon advantage, and how ardently to chase it. For some managers, it’s the be-all and end-all, while others set a lineup and a bullpen strategy and play their best players no matter what the matchup. Casey Stengel, an inveterate platooner, won 10 pennants and seven World Series in 12 years managing the Yankees, while Charlie Manuel became the winningest manager in Phillies history by not really caring that much which side of the plate his players batted from. Both approaches can work, depending on the manager and the players.

Both Counsell and Roberts rewrite their lineup pretty much every game, but the Dodgers have a set series of platoon hitters; left-handed hitters Max Muncy and Joc Pederson start against righties, along with the right-handed Yasiel Puig, who had a reverse split of 300 points this year, while right-handed hitters David Freese, Matt Kemp, and Chris Taylor start against lefties.

“That’s something we’ve done all September with the extended roster and bigger bullpen—we were able to play matchups, and when they’d pinch hit we’d make a pitching change, so that’s something we’re used to,” Burnes said. “I imagine we’ll be doing the same thing against the Dodgers—obviously we’re a little bit limited in roster size, but I think we’ll be able match up with these guys well.”

Counsell is likely chasing the platoon advantage with his rotation, stacking lefties González and Miley at the front of the rotation, while the right-handed Chacín, the team’s best starter, will not start until Game 3 despite being on full rest for Game 1. In essence, he’s daring Roberts to bench Puig, the Dodgers’ best corner outfield defender, and Muncy, perhaps the Dodgers’ best hitter overall, for the first half of games 1 and 2.

Roberts has shown a willingness to substitute liberally within games as well, so Muncy is prepared to come off the bench and start by facing the Brewers bullpen.

“We know their strength is their bullpen, so those are kind of the guys you focus on,” Muncy said. “Now even more so, knowing [the Brewers are going with lefties in games 1 and 2]. We don’t know what the lineup is going to be, but just assuming we go with our usual lineup against a lefty, I’ll come in off the bench later in the game.”

Playing matchups with relief pitchers and pinch hitters is usually about winning a single at-bat. If Counsell needs five or six high-leverage innings from the same five relievers every night, he can’t afford to switch from a lefty reliever to a righty reliever and back with each batter.

“There’s going to be some kind of chess played this series, and that’s part of the fun,” Roberts said. And because the Brewers are going to have to get quantity out of their bullpen, not just quality, Roberts is going to be able to set up the board how he wants most of the time.

Tactically, Counsell’s only counter is that Roberts will have a limited number of bench bats, probably five, even if he plans to use three of them as a matter of course to get a matchup he wants. Counsell can mitigate the effects of the Dodgers’ platooning and substitutions somewhat by anticipating which batters his pitchers might face. The Brewers relievers don’t always pitch in the same order, but they’ve learned to read the game situation and figure out when they’re more likely to come in.

“When we’re out in the bullpen, as the game’s going on, we can look at the lineups and see who’s coming up,” Burnes said. “So you get a feel for it. Three of the next four hitters are lefties, so lefties will start stretching out, or 2-3-4 will be right-left-right, so maybe some of the righties are going to get started. It just depends on how the lineups will look.”

Even so, every back-end Brewers reliever is going to face opposite-handed batters. Here are Milwaukee’s top five relievers and their 2018 numbers broken down by platoon split.

Top Five Brewers Relievers’ 2018 Platoon Splits

Pitcher OPS vs. LHB OPS vs. RHP Split
Pitcher OPS vs. LHB OPS vs. RHP Split
Jeffress 0.469 0.568 -0.099
Burnes 0.512 0.638 -0.126
Hader 0.355 0.548 0.193
Soria 0.704 0.542 0.162
Knebel 0.613 0.71 -0.097

Two things jump out from this chart. The first is that every high-leverage Brewers reliever is good against both lefties and righties. In addition to OPS+, which adjusts for league and park factors, Baseball-Reference has a stat called sOPS+, which adjusts a hitter’s (or in that case, pitcher’s) stats for how the league performed under those conditions as well. The highest opponent sOPS+ any of these five pitchers had this year by platoon split is Knebel’s 97 sOPS+ against right-handed batters, which means every pitcher was at least better than average against hitters on both sides of the plate. Hader, for instance, has the biggest platoon split of the bunch, almost 200 points, but is so good against lefties that even with the split, he’s better than Jeffress, Burnes, or Knebel against righties as well.

“I’m not really sure who I’d be looking forward to—obviously if they have some lefties, we’ll try to play the matchup—but ultimately [Counsell and bench coach Pat Murphy] make that decision,” Hader said. “Ultimately, as long as we throw strikes and use our strengths to get guys out, that’s the best we can do and the best we can prepare for it.”

In addition to everyone being at least adequate against hitters from both sides of the plate, it’s notable that three of the Brewers’ righties have reverse splits this year, which means they were better against opposite-handed batters than same-handed batters. Single-season splits aren’t gospel for relief pitchers, because their sample size is so small. In fact, while Knebel shows a significant reverse split for his career, Jeffress is 103 points better for his career against righties than lefties, which is the opposite of what this year’s numbers show. (Burnes has thrown so few big league innings that it’s tough to say for sure whether this is a fluke.)

The basic idea behind the platoon advantage is that all things being equal, it’s easier to hit a ball that’s breaking toward you than away from you. Breaking balls have what’s called glove-side motion, meaning a left-handed pitcher’s curveball or slider breaks across the plate and in on a right-handed batter, and the reverse is true of right-handed pitchers and left-handed batters.

There are two ways around this. The first is to throw pitches with glove-side action.

“Being a starter, I throw four pitches, versus some of our bullpen guys who throw maybe two or three, but as far as coming into the game and using certain pitches, it all depends on the hitter,” Burnes said.

What that means is that starters have to pitch to both righties and lefties and get the same batter out two or three different ways, so they tend to develop multiple off-speed pitches, including at least one that breaks toward the pitcher’s arm side and breaks away from opposite-handed batters.

Jeffress and Soria both have such pitches. Soria’s most-used secondary pitch this season was a changeup, while Jeffress, in addition to a four-seamer and sinker, throws a splitter that comes in slower and has arm-side break.

The other way to pitch to opposite-handed batters is with a so-called back-foot breaking ball. That’s a breaking ball that starts over the plate but has so much movement that when it comes in on the batter, it ends up so far inside that it can’t be hit. Sometimes it literally bounces on or near the hitter’s back foot, hence the name.

Here Jeffress demonstrates the concept with a knuckle-curve.

You need a really nasty breaking ball to pull this off. If an inside breaking ball doesn’t move all the way out of the zone, it usually ends up in the seats. But Hader, Jeffress, and Knebel in particular can pitch this way.

It’s one thing for Roberts to sub in his left-handed hitters against Milwaukee’s top right-handed relievers or go after Hader with righties, but the truth is, the only platoon matchup in Milwaukee’s bullpen that would really worry me is Soria against lefties, and Counsell can manage around that.

In order to win this series, the Brewers are going to need to score more—plating just two runs through seven innings each night out like they did against Colorado probably won’t cut it—and doing that against a rotation of Clayton Kershaw (the best pitcher of the past decade), Walker Buehler (the best rookie starter in baseball this year), and Hyun-Jin Ryu (who’s been better than either of them in 2018) isn’t going to be easy.

But that’s not the bullpen’s problem. If the offense and rotation are even competent, the bullpen is absolutely strong enough and deep enough to carry the Brewers the rest of the way to the World Series.